Twentieth-Century Jews: Forging Identity in the Land of Promise and in the Promised Land

Twentieth-Century Jews: Forging Identity in the Land of Promise and in the Promised Land

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Monty Noam Penkower

Series: Judaism and Jewish Life
ISBN: 9781936235209 (hardcover)
Pages: 420 pp.
Publication Date: September 2010

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This extensively-researched collection of essays lucidly explores how members of the ever-beleaguered Jewish people grappled with their identities during the past century in the United States and in Eretz Israel, the new centers of Jewry’s long historical experience. With the pivotal 1903 Kishinev pogrom setting the stage, the author proceeds to examine how the Land of Promise across the Atlantic exerted different influences on Abraham Selmanovitz, Felix Frankfurter, the founders of the American Council for Judaism, and Arthur Hays Sulzberger. Professor Penkower then shows how the prospect of nationalism in the biblical Promised Land engendered other tensions and transformations, ranging from the plight of Hayim Nahman Bialik, to rivalry within the Orthodox Jewish camp, to on-going strife between the political Left and Right over the nature of the emerging Jewish state.


Monty Noam Penkower is Professor Emeritus of Jewish History at the Machon Lander Graduate School of Jewish Studies, Jerusalem. He was Victor J. Selmanowitz Professor of Modern Jewish History at Touro College in New York City, and also taught at Bard College, Rutgers University, and Stern College, and in the graduate history departments of New York University and Yeshiva University. His numerous publications include The Federal Writers’ Project (1977); The Jews Were Expendable: Free World Diplomacy and the Holocaust (1983); The Emergence of Zionist Thought (1986); The Holocaust and Israel Reborn: From Catastrophe to Sovereignty (1994); Decision on Palestine Deferred: America, Britain and Wartime Diplomacy, 1939-1945 (2002); Twentieth Century Jews: Forging Identity in the Land of Promise and in the Promised Land (2010), and The Swastika's Darkening Shadow: Voices from Before the Holocaust (2013). The Jews Were Expendable received the B’nai B’rith A.D.L. Merit for Educational Distinction and, together with The Emergence of Zionist Thought, garnered the second Samuel Belkin Memorial Literary Award from Yeshiva University.


The articles of this volume are meticulously researched and are a fascinating read. The topics should interest scholars and students of American, Israeli, Near Eastern, and European history. Lay people eager to explore the undercurrents of the Middle East conflict and of American Jewish identity will also profit from this book.
— Catherine Hezser, University of London, UK, in the Journal of Modern Jewish Studies, vol. 12, issue 3 (December 2013)
Penkower has written an important collection of essays profiling the response of prominent 20th-century US and Palestinian Jews to their Jewish identity. Five of the chapters among these well-crafted essays have been published elsewhere but revised and expanded for this volume. . . . Highly recommended.
— J. Fischel, Messiah College, in CHOICE: Current Reviews for Academic Libraries, July 2011
Penkower focuses on a handful of notable individuals to highlight the ways in which Jewish identity became increasingly complex as the 20th century progressed: Hayim Nahman Bialik, the Jewish national bard; Abraham Selmanovitz, who emigrated to the New World to found a vibrant, Orthodox community that enshrined the values and customs of the Old; Haim Arlosoroff, the brilliant political moderate whose assassination in Tel Aviv in 1933 blighted the course of Zionism; Felix Frankfurter, Supreme Court judge, one of the highest placed Jews in America after 1939; and Arthur Sulzberger, publisher of The New York Times, an ardent anti-Zionist, who refused to appoint Jews to leading posts on the paper or print the full names of his Jewish contributors, and who was responsible for “grossly” muting the Times’ coverage of Nazi atrocities. At times, these lives overlap but, singularly or jointly, they powerfully portray the cultural, political and religious tensions that transformed Jews and Jewish identity on both sides of the Atlantic.
— Excerpt from The Jewish Chronicle Online, by Rebecca Abrams. (Read the full review here)
Twentieth Century Jews takes the long way around the identity journey—the book is a congeries of essays on a range of topics, each one very different from the other—and it’s well worth the trip. . . . The portraits in Twentieth Century Jews develop a neat point-counterpoint of the narrative of American secularization and assimilation that were the byproducts of American ‘freedom’ and of the political and ideological cholent that characterized the yishuv. Collectively, Penkower’s rich portraits give the reader a larger picture: that of the tensions and interactions—political, cultural and religious—that contoured Jewish identity in the new, ‘post-European,’ dispensations of Jewish life.
— Excerpt from "Building the Perfect Beast: Constructing Jewish and Israeli Identity in the 20th Century" by Jerome A. Chanes. Published in The Forward, April 13, 2011. (Read the full review here)
Twentieth Century Jews portrays critical movements and leading personages in the era’s two fastest growing centers of Jewish life. It illuminates both the issues that shaped Jews in America and Israel, and the great questions that continue to divide them.
— Jonathan D. Sarna, Joseph H. & Belle R. Braun Professor of American Jewish History, Brandeis University
Prof. Monty Noam Penkower has once again presented readers with a fascinating volume that focuses on a pivotal period in the modern Jewish experience. With chapters ranging from the Kishinev Pogrom of 1903, through an exploration of figures of secular and religious Jewish stature in the United States such as Justice Felix Frankfurter and Rabbi Abraham Selmanowitz, and up to a discussion of controversial political activists in Palestine such as Haim Arlosoroff and Shlomo Ben-Yosef, Penkower keeps readers spellbound with the depth and breadth of his knowledge. Drawing on archival material found on three continents, he has created a multidimensional picture of Jewish life in Europe, the United States and Israel during the first decades of the twentieth century, and captured the essence of the social, political, religious and economic dilemmas which world Jewry faced during those fateful years. He introduces us to the protagonists of his story in an extremely readable fashion, and skillfully guides us through their deliberations and decisions, giving us a sense of being privy to the behind-the-scenes activities in all cases. Reading this book is a must for anyone interested in understanding some of the complexities of the Jewish twentieth century experience.
— Judy Baumel-Schwartz, Chair of the Graduate Program in Contemporary Jewry, Department of Jewish History, Bar-Ilan University